The recent corporate transfer of Alec Baldwin from permanent NBC Saturday Night Live guest host and star of the recently cancelled low-rated NBC series 30 Rock to his upcoming gig as a raving anchor at MSNBC sounds like something out of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film Network. Not the least of which because Baldwin’s in-house transfer was preceded by an outrageous homophobic slur, which old media — and not just NBC — worked very hard to bury. But then, there’s very little about television news that Network didn’t anticipate.
Because of the length of time needed for a movie to be both green-lighted, and then produced, few cinematic satires arrive at the apogee of their subject’s power. When Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove in 1964, the Air Force had begun to move away from nuclear-equipped B-52 bombers to a missile-based attack system. By the time Robert Altman had shot M*A*S*H in 1970, President Nixon was beginning to wind down American involvement in the Vietnam War. In the 1980s, films such as Red Dawn and 2010: The Year We Make Contact depicted America involved in future military conflicts with the Soviet Union, even as the latter was imploding. (Thank you, President Reagan.)
But when Network hit movie theaters in 1976, the original big three television networks were at the apex of their uncontested power; newspapers were losing readership, the World Wide Web was nearly 20 years off, and even CNN wouldn’t begin broadcasting until 1980. More importantly, talk radio, Fox News and the Blogosphere wouldn’t come into to play for another 15 to 25 years respectively. There was nothing to stop television’s untrammeled power, and seemingly no way for the individual to fight back.
“It’s Not Satire — It’s Sheer Reportage”
In his 2005 interview with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies, Sidney Lumet, Network’s director, told Osborne that when he and Chayefsky were making their initial rounds on the interview circuit to promote the movie, “Paddy and I, whenever we’d be asked something about ‘this brilliant satire,’ we’d keep saying, ‘It’s not a satire — it’s sheer reportage!’ The only thing that hasn’t happened yet is nobody’s been shot on the air!”